Research philosophy and approach
The first difficulty in designing the methodology for this study is to decide between the use of a qualitative or a quantitative analysis to answer the research questions. The research questions are based not so much in a hypothesis, but in a pool of questions about whether the trends for women in the workplace worldwide to have experienced limitations on their careers due to perceived or actual gender inequality are reflected in the recounted experiences of Saudi Arabian female academics and whether or not feminine agency emerges as a concept in their discourse on the subject. This is essentially then a “finding out” rather than a hypothesising in order to gather data to test a hypothesis. Neuman (1997) states that there are only two methods of collecting data, one which uses numbers, and one which uses words. Although this seems like an oversimplified definition, this study, in seeking to collect recounted words around people’s experiences lends itself to the latter rather than the former in a broad sense. For this reason, a qualitative approach to collecting seemed like a likely first choice. Another factor, which favoured the qualitative approach, was the numbers of people involved in the study. By necessity, the sample group would be small, this makes a quantitative study using statistical analysis to be less valid. However, if a qualitative approach were to be chosen, then it would not be viable to apply the findings of the research to other sectors of the female work force in Saudi Arabia. “It is clear that an account of an experience—of an observation or the result of an experiment—can in the first place be only a singular statement and not a universal one.” (Popper 1956).
Another barrier to using a quantitative approach to generate a statistical report was that it did not seem suitable to use survey questions with the study participants, as to do so would close down the type of information necessary to find out about truly individual experiences. It seemed that if the questions were formulated from the researcher perspective that this would interfere with the objectivity desired when collecting the data. The researcher’s own paradigms could be obstructive to a free-flowing process of thought in the participants. “A paradigm is the mental window through which the researcher views the world. Generally, what he or she sees in the social world is what is objectively out there, as interpreted by his or her paradigm of concepts, categories assumptions and biases.” (Bailey 2008).
The difficulty in collecting and interpreting qualitative data is that a qualitative approach does not have one clear meaning or methodology, and qualitative research “covers a wide range of different, even conflicting, activities.”(Silverman 2011). “Approaches to qualitative enquiry have become highly diverse, including work informed by phenomenology, ethnomethodology, ethnography, hermeneutics, symbolic interaction, heuristics, critical theory, positivism and feminist enquiry” (Patton 1990). Choosing an approach by which to investigate the research questions seemed to depend on a “best fit” when considering all of the available forms of design.
The study seemed at first to lend itself to an ethnological approach due to its intention to “describe and interpret the culture of various social groups”, the research intention was to collect descriptions of the experiences, and perceptions of what could be regarded as a “social group” in one sense. However when I studied more about this approach I realised it was much more useful for making comparisons between different cultures and not suited to my research question. “Ethnography scholars focus on culture, the beliefs, values, and attitudes that structure the behaviour patterns of a group of individuals” (Woods 2015). The focus of this research was not just about a culture of Muslim women in Saudi Arabia but of a specific group of professionals within that culture, and the comparisons that would need to be made to satisfy a true ethnological study were beyond the scope of this research and would need further research into specific groups of female academics in different locations in Saudi Arabia which then stretches the definition of my sample group as a “culture” beyond acceptable limits. Ethnological study involves observing groups in their natural environment, without interacting with them. The data obtained from such observation would not show how the female academic staff perceives their career success nor would it give a narrative about recollections of gendered experiences in the work place.